Top 50 Greatest NFL Players of All Time
Top 50 Players in NFL History
It's tough to compare players at the same position from different eras and it's tough to compare players at different positions. So when you compare players from all positions and all eras, things are bound to get sticky. The NFL players rank each other every year, but only their peers who are currently playing. After much internal debate (and when I say "internal," I mean with myself), I've finally come up with a ranking for the top 50 players in NFL history. The list does include a few current players and those are the ones most likely to spark the greatest controversy. But then again, it could be the older players, depending on who's going through the list.
In either case, there are no legendary players left out of the top few, including linemen on both sides of the ball. In other words, this isn't just some thrown-together list with all position players who were popular but not necessarily great. On the same note, there are some who weren't that popular, but were exceptional on the field, so they're still on the list whether anyone likes them or not. If it weren't for the combination of good and bad players as well as those who are likable and those who aren't, lists like this wouldn't exist and we couldn't debate things like this.
But if you're into it, then this is the ultimate list for you. Please enjoy the top 50 greatest players in NFL history and let us know how you would re-rank them by commenting below when you're done!
50. Art Shell
Art Shell was one of the tough, gritty players known with the Raiders during their days in Los Angeles and then still after their move to Oakland. Shell joined the Raiders in 1968, two years before the AFL and NFL merger, and won two Super Bowls with the team as a player. Shell won a third Super Bowl with the Raiders as an assistant coach two years after retiring as a player.
49. Bruce Matthews
As one of the incredible talents of the 1983 NFL Draft class, Bruce Matthews is one of the most recognizable and popular players in the history of the Oilers/Titans franchise. In fact, he's the offensive line coach for the Titans today. Matthew played in more seasons (19) than any other lineman in NFL history and once held the record for most games played by any player. As one of the most durable players in NFL history, Matthews blocked for the likes of Earl Campbell and Warren Moon during his Hall of Fame career.
48. Kellen Winslow
Kellen Winslow Sr. was one of the first primary pass-catching tight ends in NFL history. Unlike tight ends before him, Winslow was often put in motion to avoid being jammed at the line of scrimmage and he was split out like a wide receiver often as well, something is now common among players at his position. Winslow is one of the most popular players in Chargers history, having played all 13 seasons of his Hall of Fame career in San Diego.
47. Rod Woodson
Rod Woodson was one of the first modern cornerbacks to play a Hall of Fame career and then switch to safety and continue to play at a high level. Woodson played most of his career with the Steelers and was a very popular player while embodying the Steelers' philosophy of hard-hitting, no-apologies football. Woodson appeared in Super Bowls with the Steelers, Ravens and Raiders, winning his only ring in Baltimore.
46. Gene Upshaw
Gene Upshaw spent his entire NFL career with the Raiders, providing superb blocking alongside Art Shell (No. 50 on this list). Upshaw played in three Super Bowls, winning two of them, and became the first player to reach the title game in three different decades (1967, 1976 and 1980). Perhaps Upshaw's finest accomplishment was his dominating performance over Hall of Fame defensive tackle Alan Page in a win over the Vikings in Super bowl XI, during which the Raiders rushed for 266 yards as Upshaw owned Page for the entirety of the contest.
45. Jim Otto
After going undrafted in 1960, Jim Otto signed with the Raiders in the AFL's inaugural season and played 15 seasons in Los Angeles. Otto played alongside Gene Upshaw (No. 46 on this list) and lost Super Bowl II, his only title game appearance. Otto went on to play in nine AFL All-Star games, three NFL Pro Bowls and induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
44. Randy White
Randy White was drafted No. 2 overall in 1975 and backed up Lee Roy Jordan for the Cowboys in his first two seasons before moving to defensive tackle, replacing Bob "Mr. Cowboy" Lilly (No. 22 on this list), who retired that year. White became known as the "Manster" (half man, half monster) because of his ferocious play and made the Pro Bowl, was named to the All-Pro team and was voted co-MVP of Super Bowl XII in his first season at defensive tackle. The rest of his Hall of Fame career is history.
43. Earl Campbell
One of the greatest running backs in NFL history, Earl Campbell was a power runner and developed his brutal running style from his days at the University of Texas. Other than a two-year stint in the twilight of his NFL career, Campbell played his entire football career in Texas, first at John Tyler High School, then UT and finally the Houston Oilers. Campbell ran for over 9,400 yards and 74 touchdowns in his Hall of Fame career.
42. Forrest Gregg
Forrest Gregg played 15 of his 16 NFL seasons with the Packers, with whom he won five NFL championships and two Super Bowls under Vince Lombardi in the 1960s. Gregg helped to protect Bart Starr in wins in the first two Super Bowls and played with the Packers until 1971, when he played one final season with the Cowboys, which resulted in another Super Bowl win. Gregg then coached for four NFL teams, including the Packers, two Canadian Football teams and at his alma mater, SMU.
41. Eric Dickerson
Eric Dickerson is one of the greatest running backs in NFL history, but is mostly known for his 2,105 yards in 1984, a single-season record that still stands today. Dickerson averaged 4.4 yards per carry in his career, which included sub-4.0 seasons with the Colts, Raiders and Flacons in the twilight of his career. Dickerson was tall and long for a running back, but his13,259 total yards and 90 touchdowns earned him a spot in the Hall of Fame.
40. Tom Brady
Tom Brady is just the second quarterback to win three Super Bowls in a four-year span. He's also became just the third to throw for over 5,000 yards in a season in 2011, which was four years after breaking the single season passing touchdown record with 50 in 2007. Brady is one of only three active players on this list.
39. Terry Bradshaw
Terry Bradshaw was the first quarterback to win four Super Bowls and the first to win back-to-back titles on two separate occasions. Bradshaw only had seven 300-yard games in his career, but two of them came in Super Bowls, so to say he was a clutch player is an understatement. Since retiring following a Hall of Fame career, Bradshaw has become a very popular analyst on FOX NFL Sunday.
38. Red Grange
Red Grange was a pioneer of the NFL and a patriarch of the modern game of football. He was technically a running back, but threw the ball, caught the ball and played defense as well. Through a partnership with George Halas, Red Grange earned almost 100 times what an average player did in 1925 before leaving to form his own league in 1926. The American Football League folded after just one season, but left the blueprint for the AFL to emerge again in 1960 before merging with the NFL in 1970. Grange caught the game-winning touchdown pass from Bronko Nagurski (No. 13 on this list) in the 1932 championship game and then made the game-winning tackle in the 1933 title game. Grange starred in two silent films and served as a Bears broadcaster after his playing days.
37. Roger Staubach
Roger Staubach chose duty before football, serving four years in the United States Navy after winning the Heisman Trophy as the Midshipmen's quarterback (he's the last player from a military academy to win the award). When he finally played for the Cowboys as a 27-year-old rookie in 1969, Staubach kept setting new standards as a scrambling quarterback and a comeback artist, earning him the nicknames "Roger the Dodger" and "Captain Comeback." Staubach led the Cowboys to their first two Super Bowl victories and was inducted into the Hall of Fame five years after retiring.
36. Tony Gonzalez
Although 2013 will be his last season, Tony Gonzalez is one of three active players on this list. He owns virtually every record in the books for a tight end, although Jason Witten is on pace to surpass most of his marks. Gonzalez won his first playoff game with the Falcons in 2012, but created his legacy with a slew of mediocre Chiefs teams in the 2000s. Gonzalez set a new standard for pass-receiving tight ends in skill set, consistency and durability and he's not done yet.
35. Mel Blount
Mel Blount joined the Steelers as a third-round pick at the perfect time. After developing into a starter, he won four Super Bowls in six years as one of the traditional tough, hard-hitting defensive backs in Pittsburgh history. Blount recorded 57 interceptions in his Hall of Fame career.
34. Alan Page
Alan Page played most of his NFL career with the Vikings, appearing in four Super Bowls and losing in all of them. In 1971, Page was named the NFL Defensive Player of the Year and became the first defensive player to win the MVP award in the same season. Page is an example to all professional athletes of how to be successful after sports; he attended the University of Minnesota Law School while playing for the Vikings and serves as an associate justice of the Minnesota Supreme Court today.
33. John Mackey
Until a knee injury forced him into early retirement John Macky was one of the most durable players in the NFL, having played all but one game in his entire 10-year career. Mackey was fast at 6'2" and 225 pounds and was a superb pass-catching tight end, especially during his era. He won two NFL championships and one Super Bowl with the Colts before retiring after one season with the Chargers.
32. Dan Marino
Dan Marino is considered by many the best quarterback never to win a Super Bowl. As a part of the historic 1983 NFL Draft class, Marino became the first quarterback to throw for over 5,000 yards in a season (broken in 2011) while also setting the single-season record for passing touchdowns with 48 (broken in 2004) in his second season. Marino was named the league's MVP that year and led the Dolphins to a 38-16 loss to the Joe Montana-led 49ers in the Super Bowl. Marino made seven of his nine Pro Bowls after that historic season and set a ton of NFL passing records, although most of which have since been broken.
31. OJ Simpson
Before all of his murder trial drama, OJ Simpson was a superb football player. He became the first NFL player to rush for over 2,000 yards in 1973 and is still the only player to rush for over 2,000 yards in a 14-game season. Simpson never played in a Super Bowl, but he was the Barry Sanders of his day in that he carried the Bills as a one-man show for the majority of his Hall of Fame career.
30. Lance Alworth
Although he could have played professional baseball for the Yankees or Pirates out of high school, Lance Alworth played college football at Arkansas before being drafted by the AFL's San Diego Chargers and the NFL's San Francisco 49ers in 1962. Alworth played nine years with the Chargers, earning seven AFL All-Star selections and winning an AFL title in 1963.
29. Jim Thorpe
What all-time great athletes list doesn't include Jim Thorpe? He grew up in Oklahoma of both Native Americans and European ancestry before winning two Olympic gold medals and playing professional football, basketball and baseball. Thorpe was named to the NFL 1920s All-Decade Team after playing 52 games with six different teams from 1920 to 1928. Had he focused solely on football, Thorpe likely would be considered the greatest player of all time.
28. Chuck Bednarik
Chuck Bednarik served four years in the U.S. Air Force before playing college ball at the University of Pennsylvania. He was then the No. 1 overall pick in the 1949 NFL Draft and played 14 seasons for the Eagles. Bendarik was named to eight Pro Bowls and won two NFL Championships in Philadelphia. Bednarik is known as one of the most ferocious and violent tacklers in NFL history, having knocked Frank Gifford out of football for over 18 months with one monstrous hit in 1960.
27. Deion Sanders
Deion "Prime Time" Sanders is arguably the greatest cornerback in the history of the game. His incredible speed and quickness made him one of the best cover men of all time and that, coupled with his incredible ability to return the ball, led to his NFL record 19 non-offensive touchdowns. Sanders returned nine of his 53 career interceptions for touchdowns and did so in style. His flashy ways make him hard to miss as an NFL analyst today and paved the way for that same sense of flamboyancy in today's generation.
26. Jim Parker
Jim Parker was a superb offensive guard at Ohio State, where he helped Woody Hayes establish the three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust offense, but that was the opposite of the pass-happy Colts, who drafted Parker eight overall in the 1957 NFL Draft. However, Parker quickly became the premier pass blocker in the NFL as an offensive tackle, protecting Johnny Unitas. Parker moved back to guard in 1963 as a favor to Hayes to make room for fellow former Buckeye Bob Vogel as a tackle on the Colts' roster. Parker won back-to-back titles in Baltimore, including the 1958 NFL Championship game, which is considered by many to be the greatest game of all time in any sport.
25. Bruce Smith
The NFL's all-time leader in sacks is Bruce Smith, who recorded exactly 200 in his Hall of Fame career, which included four Super Bowl appearances with the Bills. Smith was named to the NFL 1980s and 1990s All-Decade Teams while playing in 279 games and forcing 46 fumbles. Naturally, Smith was inducted into the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility.
24. Jack Lambert
Arguably the most feared defensive player of all time, Jack Lambert was the most ruthless and hard-hitting linebacker of the 1970s, earning him the title of "the premier linebacker of his era" by the Hall of Fame. Lambert helped the Steelers to four Super Bowl wins in his 11-year career and was a patriarch of the hard-hitting Pittsburgh defenses that are still common today.
23. Merlin Olsen
Merlin Olsen was drafted by the NFL's Rams and the AFL's Broncos in the 1962 NFL Draft, but chose to play for Los Angeles as the third overall pick. Olsen was named to 14 Pro Bowls and only missed two games in his 15-year career. As a member of the Fearsome Foursome, Olsen never played in a Super Bowl, but was named to the NFL's 75th Anniversary Team in 1994.
22. Bob Lilly
As the 13th overall pick in the 1961 NFL Draft, Bob "Mr. Cowboy" Lilly was a patriarch of the Cowboys' franchise and is a primary reason why Dallas is one of the most popular sports teams in the world today. He played in 11 Pro Bowls and helped the Cowboys to a win in Super Bowl VI, during which he recorded an NFL record 29-yard sack. Lilly the first player to be inducted into the Cowboys' Ring of Honor and he's also a member of the Hall of Fame.
21. Ray Lewis
Ray Lewis has retired or he would be one of only four active players on this list. Aside from his murder trial in the first part of the new millennium, Lewis has been a superb football player and an incredible leader for the Ravens' defense since the franchise's inception. Lewis is a huge reason why the Ravens have two Super Bowl titles and became the second player to record 30 interceptions and 30 sacks in a career.
20. Gale Sayers
In the long line of great Bears players running backs, Gale Sayers isn't the best, but he's arguably the greatest kick returner of all time -- his career average of 30.56 yards per kickoff return is the highest in NFL history. Sayers played only six seasons for the Bears after a pair of knee injuries forced him to retire.
19. Emmitt Smith
The NFL's all-time leading rusher played behind arguably the greatest offensive line in NFL history, but Emmitt Smith is still one of the greatest players to ever put on a helmet. He was the heart and soul of the Cowboys' 1990 dynasty and cemented his legacy in the 1993 NFL season, in which he held out and missed the first two games, but still led the league in rushing and won the regular-season and Super Bowl MVP awards. In the regular season finale, Smith rushed for 170 yards on 32 carries and caught 10 passes for 62 yards after with a dislocated shoulder in an overtime win over the Giants that gave Dallas the No. 1 seed in the playoffs. The Cowboys went on to win their second of three Super Bowls in four years.
18. Dick Butkus
Before Jack Lambert (No. 24 on this list) and the Steelers' dominating defense of the 1970s, there was Dick Butkus, dubbed "The Most Feared Man in the Game" by Sports Illustrated. Butkus was a superb all-around linebacker who was especially known for forcing and recovering fumbles. At the time of his retirement, his 27 career fumble recoveries were an NFL record and had the stat been kept at that time, he likely would still be the all-time leader in forced fumbles as well.
17. Anthony Munoz
Anthony Munoz is widely considered the greatest offensive lineman of all time. Despite an incredibly injury-plagued collegiate career, he was the third overall pick by the Bengals in the 1980 NFL Draft and missed only three games in his first 12 seasons in Cincinnati. Munoz caught seven passes for 18 yards and four touchdowns on tackle-eligible plays during his career, which is fitting for the greatest player at a position that doesn't get a lot of notoriety.
16. Ronnie Lott
No one in NFL history hit harder than Ronnie Lott, the top-ranked defensive back on this list. Lott was an instant start after being drafted No. 8 overall in the 1981 NFL Draft -- he recorded seven interceptions and returned three of those for touchdowns while helping the 49ers win the Super Bowl as a rookie. He switched from cornerback to safety in 1985 and was arguably more successful at that position after having the tip of his left pinky finger amputated. Lott helped the 49ers win four Super Bowls in the 1980s before a pair of two-year stints with the Raiders and Jets in the twilight of his career.
15. Deacon Jones
Deacon Jones was a 14th-round pick in the 1961 NFL Draft, but played his way into the Hall of Fame as a member of the Fearsome Foursome. Jones played in eight Pro Bowls and was named to the NFL's 75th Anniversary Team in 1994. Sacks were not kept as an official statistic in the 1960s; otherwise Jones would hold the record for the most sacks in a single season after he unofficially recorded 26 in 1967.
14. John Elway
As the No. 1 overall pick in the legendary 1983 NFL Draft, John Elway is easily one of the most legendary players in NFL history. He took two different eras of Broncos teams to a total of five Super Bowls, winning a pair of rings in his last two seasons. At the time of his retirement, Elway held the NFL record for most victories by a starting quarterback and he is fourth on the NFL's all-time passing list. Elway is most known for his helicopter dive in Super Bowl XXXII, during which he dove for a first down on third-and-six at the age of 37, only to be hit and spun in the air before hitting the turf hard. The Broncos took the lead two plays later and won their first Super Bowl.
13. Bronko Nagurski
Like many players of his day, Bronko Nagurski played only briefly in the NFL. He won two NFL Championships with the Bears in the 1930s and then a third when he returned to the team in 1943 after a five-year absence from football. During that time away from the NFL, Nagurski won multiple world heavyweight titles as a wrestler. Perhaps Nagurski's most memorable moment was a long scoring run he made at Wrigley Field during which he broke four tackles in Hulk-like fashion before crashing off the goalposts and into the brick wall. The New York Times reports Nagurski said "that last guy hit me awfully hard" following the incredible play.
12. Otto Graham
Otto Graham is considered to be the first modern passing quarterback. His 234 passing yards-per-game average in 1952 is believed to be the highest ever at that time. Graham was a super passer who led the Browns to four AAFC Championships and three NFL Championships from 1946 to 1955 after serving in the Navy in World War II out of college. Paul Brown noted Graham's ability to anticipate receivers' cuts on routes better than any other quarterback before him. But Graham's incredible running ability is the part of his game that often goes unnoticed; he had 99 rushing yards to go along with 298 through the air and four total touchdowns in the 1950 NFL title game, which was just one example of his many incredible single-game performances.
11. Brett Favre
It's quite the accomplishment to be the most legendary Packer of all time, but Brett Favre fits the bill. He took Green Bay to back-to-back Super Bowls, winning the first one, before setting virtually every career passing record in the book, both good and bad. Favre is most noted for his toughness and gunslinger playing style. He displayed one of the strongest arms in the history of the game and started a record 297 consecutive games. Favre had arguably the best season of his career with the Vikings in 2009, his 19th in the NFL. In 20 years as a starting quarterback, Favre won more games (186) than any other in history.
10. Joe Greene
"Mean Joe" Greene was arguably the best player in Pittsburgh during the Steelers' 1970s dynasty. He led them to four Super Bowl wins in six years while making memories for football fans everywhere, including spitting in the face of Dick Butkus and filming the infamous "Thanks, Mean Joe" Coca-Cola commercial. Green was so dominant as a 4-3 defensive tackle that he was never replaced; following his retirement, the Steelers switched to the 3-4 defense and have utilized it ever since.
9. Jim Brown
As the sixth overall pick in the 1956 NFL Draft, Jim Brown was one of the most dominant players to ever put on a helmet. He was a brutal runner, smashing into defenders like a linebacker hitting unsuspecting receivers on crossing routes, yet he had a grace that rivaled that of Eric Dickerson (No. 41 on this list). At the time of his retirement in 1965, Brown held the NFL records for rushing yards in a season, career rushing yards, career rushing touchdowns, total career touchdowns and career all-purpose yards. To this day, he's still the only player to average over 100 yards per game for his career.
8. Reggie White
Reggie White played his first professional season with the Memphis Snowboats of the USFL before joining the Eagles in the NFL in 1985 as a 1984 supplemental draft pick. He played eight years in Philadelphia before signing with Green Bay in 1993, where he played six seasons. White helped the Packers to two Super Bowls, including a victory in Super Bowl XXXI and retired with 198 sacks, the second-most in NFL history.
7. Johnny Unitas
Johnny Unitas was drafted by the Steelers in the ninth round, but never even took a snap in his home town of Pittsburgh. He sat out the 1955 season and worked in construction until he earned a spot on the Colts' roster, much to the dismay of the Browns, who hoped to sign Unitas as Otto Graham's (No. 12 on this list) replacement.
Although Graham is considered the first modern passing quarterback, Unitas took the term to a whole new level while introducing the two-minute offense to the NFL. In the regular season finale of his rookie year, he threw a touchdown pass that began a streak of 47 consecutive games with at least one scoring toss. Unitas led the Colts to two NFL Championships -- including a win in the 1958 title game, dubbed "the greatest game ever played" -- and a Super Bowl win in 1970. Unitas was the first NFL quarterback to throw for 40,000 yards in a career and the first to throw for 30 touchdown passes in a single season (1959).
6. Lawrence Taylor
Many legendary NFL defensive players are described as mean or feared (including many on this list), but Lawrence Taylor takes the cake. He won the NFL Defensive Player of the Year Award a record three times, including a league MVP award in 1986 before leading the Giants to two Super Bowl wins. Taylor changed the way NFL offenses blocked linebackers, prompting Joe Gibbs to create the two-tight end offense and Bill Walsh to begin using offensive linemen to pick up blitzing linebackers. John Madden once said Taylor made a bigger impact on the game of football than any other defensive player in history.
5. Peyton Manning
Peyton Manning is the highest-ranked of the three active players on this list. He's ranked in the top five of all major career passing categories and is on pace to break all of Brett Favre's milestones, despite missing all of the 2011 season. Manning is the most fundamentally sound quarterback to ever play the game and his study habits are unrivaled throughout history. Even more so, Manning's unique ability to play as a coach on the field is something that is rapidly becoming the standard among quarterbacks today. He's won the NFL MVP award a record four times and currently holds 40 NFL passing records.
4. Joe Montana
Although Peyton Manning (No. 5 on this list) is arguably the greatest quarterback of all time, Joe Montana was a better football player. In short, he won. The 49ers were a cellar dweller team before Montana came along and after he led them to four Super Bowl wins in the 1980s, the Niners are now one of the most storied franchises in the NFL. Unlike many of the other quarterbacks on this list, Montana doesn't hold a ton of regular season records, but he set virtually all postseason passing marks (although some have since been surpassed), including most touchdown passes, most passing yards and most 300-yard games. Finally, Montana won more Super Bowl MVP awards (three) than another player.
3. Walter Payton
No player ever displayed the grace that Walter Payton did. "Sweetness" once held the NFL records for most career rushing yards, carries, rushing touchdowns and all-purpose yards. Payton also held the record for most rushing yards in a game until it was broken in 2000.
Payton's efforts to heighten awareness for organ donation were only a part of his off-the-field heroics, which is why the NFL named its annual Man of the Year Award after Payton in 1999.
As the replacement to Gale Sayers (No. 20 on this list), Payton led the Bears to their only Super Bowl win in 1985. He won his only NFL MVP Award in 1977 and was named to the NFL 75th Anniversary Team in 1994.
2. Jerry Rice
They just don't make them much better than Jerry Rice. Until Calvin Johnson broke his single-season receiving yards record in 2012, Rice held literally every regular and postseason receiving record in the book. In addition, Rice holds the record for the most all-purpose yards (23,546), a number that will likely never be matched. Reaching a number like that was done through not only consistent play, but consistent dominance. No defensive back, including the great Deion Sanders (No. 27 on this list) was able to shut Rice down.
Rice was drafted by the 49ers in 1985 right after his breakout season at Mississippi Valley State and their first Super Bowl victory, so he came into the league a winner. He won three Super Bowls with the 49ers and appeared in another with the Raiders, playing with some excellent quarterbacks along the way. Rice was a legendary player who displayed greatness in every aspect of his game and is recognized by the NFL as the league's greatest player of all time.
1. Barry Sanders
The greatest running back of all time is also the greatest player of all time. Barry Sanders absolutely defied logic with his superb play on a subpar team for his short NFL career. Had he continued to play through his prime, Sanders easily would have set every rushing and all-purpose yardage record in the book, but those milestones were not important to him. In fact, he once left a game after being informed that he was about to break one of Walter Payton's (No. 3 on this list) records just so that he would not break it.
Sanders is a deeply religious man and displayed his faith as a player, which led to acts like the one described above. He tried to teach humility to his teammates while making would-be tacklers miss with incredible ease. That was more difficult than it appeared because of the subpar Lions teams for which Sanders played. Many believe he would be the all-time leading rusher even though he retired at age 30 if he had played behind the offensive line that opened holes for Emmitt Smith (No. 19 on this list). Still, Sanders holds the NFL records for most consecutive 100-yard rushing games and most 1,500-yard rushing seasons. He never played in a Super Bowl, but won the NFL MVP in 1997, the year before he retired. Despite all the great played made by Sanders, the most notable part of his career is the question: What if?